NEW YORK (JTA) – Unhappy with the results of his $125 million investment in Jewish causes over the past 12 years, philanthropic trailblazer Michael Steinhardt says he is scaling back and refocusing the efforts of his signature foundation.
“The last six months have been particularly hard because I came to the realization that I was doing things I really did not want to be doing, that were really not where my head was,” Steinhardt said Wednesday during an extensive interview with JTA at his Manhattan offices. “I felt that some of the places I spent money were not where I really wanted to be spending money, that I knew were not achieving what I wanted to achieve, and they created conflicts for me and difficulty for me, and I think that period is over.”
The hedge-fund mogul made waves when he retired in the mid-1990s from the money management business with roughly half a billion dollars in the bank and pledged to devote his energies to the Jewish philanthropic world.
Steinhardt quickly made a significant impact through his foundations and Jewish Life Network think tank, becoming a founding partner of birthright israel, a program that supplies young Jews with free trips to Israel and is widely regarded as the most successful Jewish philanthropic initiative in decades. He also invested in several other groundbreaking efforts, including philanthropic partnerships that have generated tens of millions of dollars to boost day-school education and make synagogues more appealing to marginal members and unaffiliated Jews.
But now Steinhardt, well known for acerbic comments and ruffling feathers, is slamming his own record and promising major changes. Any major shift by Steinhardt could prove potentially momentous for perhaps the chief architect of the Jewish community’s new philanthropic landscape, where individual donors and private foundations, rather than local Jewish charitable federations, lead the way on a host of issues.
Steinhardt told JTA that he will be narrowing his foundation’s attention to three major areas: creating follow-up programs for birthright participants after they return home; building a $100 million Fund for the Jewish Future, also known as Areivim, to transform formal and informal Jewish education; and the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative.
He voiced plans to end his financial support for at least 18 of the 100 or so initiatives that he funds, but opted not to discuss specifics on the record. In addition, Steinhardt said he will be stepping down as chairman of the day-school initiative, the Partnership for Jewish Education, but will continue his commitment of $1.5 million over five years.
In recent months, according to sources close to him, Steinhardt had become increasingly pessimistic about the Jewish world and the impact of his investments. He articulated this disappointment publicly in May at a banquet for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
“I ask myself, overall, is the Jewish world any better today than it was 13 years ago? Have things really improved, are we reaching more people?” he said. “I don’t have positive answers. Outside of our self-congratulatory bubbles, things haven’t changed much. “
Shortly after, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg stepped down as the Jewish Life Network’s top professional, a post from which he had served as Steinhardt’s top adviser on Jewish initiatives since the organization’s founding in 1995. The departure marked the end of a prominent and ideologically improbable partnership between Steinhardt, a self-described atheist, and Greenberg, an Orthodox theologian.
In recent months, the overall staff at the Jewish Life Network has been reduced from 12 to seven, according to sources at the organization. Rabbi David Gedzelman remains its executive director.
Steinhardt has tapped the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Robert Aronson, to head the $100 million Areivim fund. The fund, which is co-chaired by Detroit billionaire William Davidson, will include 20 philanthropists who invest $5 million each. Steinhardt said 13 have signed on so far.
“I think Michael is taking a whole new look at JLN,” Aronson told JTA. “It is a very good idea. I think it will energize him. He has had a tremendous impact on American Jewish philanthropy through his ideas and initiatives.”
In total, Steinhardt has given an estimated $125 million to Jewish causes through the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Foundation and the Israel-based Steinhardt Family Foundation.
Steinhardt told JTA that while he will honor his previous financial commitments and maintain some level of support for many of the causes his foundations fund, he wants to focus in the future on crafting what he calls a “common Judaism” and developing programs that speak to the unaffiliated, as opposed to those who are already in some way connected to Judaism.
These have always been his objectives, he added, but the Jewish Life Network occasionally has strayed from them.
He plans to step down as chairman of the day-school partnership, a position he has held for 10 years.
“PEJE has been an outstanding organization,” Steinhardt said. “It is exceptionally well run by Josh Elkin, its staff is terrific and I feel it has done unusually well in a variety of circumstances.”
Still, Steinhardt said, while PEJE has helped build the Jewish day-school system, he wanted the organization to do more to help increase the number of non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews who attend day schools.
He challenged the claim in the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 that some 10 percent to 15 percent of non-Orthodox Jews attend day schools, saying the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University found that the number is closer to 3 percent.
“You ask yourself, if PEJE didn’t exist, what percentage of the non-Orthodox world would go to day schools?” he said. “Would it be much less than 3 percent?”